Hibari's shoulders grew tighter and together the longer it took to get to his private entrance to the Vongola Underground Network, as some had come to call the series of tunnels dug underneath Namimori. He refused to turn around as he listened to the quiet conversation between the three teenagers behind him. Her voice, it hurt. He had known that this was going to happen, that the teenager wasn't the same as the woman she had become. Experiences he wouldn't wish on anyone, let alone her, had shaped the woman he knew.
The knowledge lodged in his stomach like a lead weight.
"Hibari?" Tsuna's voice brought him out of his thoughts even as he forced himself not to wince.
"What is going on here?" She met his eyes as he turned to look at her with a raised eyebrow. "Lal Mirch and Reborn may have explained some things to us, but they aren't my own. I can only trust their word so far. So explain, how did everything get so bad?"
He scowled and looked around. "Not here. Not when the enemy could come back at any moment."
"You—" Hayato started to snarl at the Cloud's tone but fell silent as Tsuna lifted a hand.
"Understood. I'll hold you to that."
Hibari nodded and then smiled slightly in relief as he saw the hidden hatch that led to the underground. Kneeling and ignoring the confused looks from the two boys, he reached through the illusion that made it seem like nothing was there and opened the hatch. The boys stumbled back a step while Tsuna, her intuition telling her something had been there if not what, nodded.
The group of four made their way down the hatch into the underground. Hibari stood up and placed his right hand against the closed hatch. His brow knit as he concentrated on his less-used flames. Indigo Mist Flames coiled upward from his hand and reset the illusion and warning system. Dropping his hand, he shook the tingling feeling his Mist Flames always produced away.
"When has he been a Mist?" Hayato muttered as he eyed the older Cloud.
"Since the ruined Inheritance Ceremony forced me to bring them up," he said as blandly as he could. No one liked to remember that fuck up. The loss of the Vongola Rings had been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that the Millefiore had not been able to get their hands on them. Curse in that they lost some of the most powerful flame channels in existence.
"I need to know what happened at this ceremony," Tsuna said as she turned to walk down the long, barely lit tunnel. The lights overhead flickered. "But I think that can wait until we're back at the base proper. I need a shower, at minimum, and you boys need to see a medic to get those injuries cleaned."
"Yes, Tsuna," both of her boys chorused. They knew better than to argue. Hibari shook his head and maneuvered to be ahead of Tsuna. She peered at him as he passed. He could not stop the swift inhalation of air but tried to control his other reactions. Vongola Intuition was near impossible to hide anything from and he did not want the teenage version of his Tsunami to know his thoughts and feelings.
"You're alive!" came the united cry of I-Pin and Fuuta as the three walked into the main common room.
"Did you doubt us?" Takeshi asked before freezing in place as he took in what was going on.
"So, Lambo?" Tsuna started and then stopped as she tried to work out what the kids had done to Lambo. She knew rope work. Rumiko and the girls—and she refused to think about what had happened to them in this time—had taught her the basics of kinbaku. She had no idea how the kids had managed to get the ropes to bend the Lightning into that position and not cause rope burn.
"I don't think I'm going to ask," she finished and flopped down on a chair. She side-eyed Hibari as he went over to the side of the room and fiddled with one of the computers.
"How bad?" Lal asked, her head popping up from where she was replacing items in several first aid kits.
"Gamma." He plugged some information into the computer and frowned at whatever popped up.
"And those stupid foxes," Hayato growled as he grabbed one of the kits to take care of his and his boyfriend's scratches.
Takeshi nodded gravely as he took the offered bandages and wound cleaner. "Lightning foxes."
"You've gone through the Succession Trial already?" Hibari spun around and faced Lal. "You act too soon, woman."
"I did what I was told to," the bluenette shot back. Her eyes narrowed and shoulders hunched. The scar on her face pulled tightly as she snarled at the younger Cloud.
"Before she may have been ready," he snapped back. His eyes began to glow a faint purple as the ring on his right ring finger shimmered with barely-there Flames. His muscles tensed.
"She did handle it."
"And how long did you give her to adjust to her situation? Did you even think about how that could affect anything?"
"And it might not have."
"Enough!" Tsuna thrust herself in between the two near raging clouds. Her teeth clenched as Sky Flames burst into existence on her forehead. Her ring flared with bright orange light where the stone should have been. The dueling Cloud Flames that had been leaking into the air as the two argued jerked away, Lal even going as far as to wince. Tsuna made note of that reaction. She'd seen the same thing in Reborn before, and it concerned her.
"Enough," she repeated, her voice calmer and lower in volume. She dropped her hands but did not let up on her Flame. Hibari swallowed thickly but backed down at her look. Lal got up from her seat and took a few steps back. The two Clouds shared a dark glare before both broke away from their tense stances.
"I'm going to get some rest," Hibari said tersely. He looked over everyone gathered in the room. No one met his eyes except for the orange-blazed stars that were his heart's younger self. His stomach clenched. He inhaled softly and turned on his heel. He did not want to deal with this now. He didn't want to deal with it at all if he was true to himself. "I'd suggest everyone get some rest. There will be training tomorrow, and you all will need your strength."
"Hibari," Tsuna started but didn't say anything else as the Cloud marched out of the common room and down the hall to the personal rooms.
"Tsuna-hime," Takeshi said from his chair. Hayato hovered at his shoulder, his eyes concerned and mildly irritated.
"Then why haven't you cut your Flames?" Basil, hiding in a pile of pillows and blankets, piped up. He lifted his head, blond hair falling in his face. Tsuna's eyes narrowed as she looked at him. He grinned weakly and ducked back under his covers.
Letting out a deep breath through her nose, Tsuna relaxed and pulled her Flames back in. Her skin felt tight. Uncomfortable warmth curled inside her. She shifted her shoulders and leaned from one side to the other.
"Are you okay, Tsuna?" Fuuta frowned at her.
She sighed. "I'm just tired. It's been a wild 24 hours. I think I need some sleep."
"Here, here," Hayato muttered, jaw visibly clenching.
"Then get some rest," Lal said, her voice not nearly as strong as it had been before. She looked over the group of teenagers and shook her head. "Get some food in you and turn in early. Hibari was right about one thing, you're going to need your strength for training tomorrow."
Tsuna woke with her breath stuck in her throat and tears running down her cheeks. A sob, soft and quiet, broke the silence of the night. She curled up into a ball as her emotions ran wild. That dream, no nightmare, ran over and over in her head. Blood and screams and the death of all she loved repeated over and over. Her chest ached. Breath wheezed as she tried to calm herself.
Sitting up, she dropped her head into her hands. She shook. That nightmare made her stomach twist. Her dinner threatened to come back up and only strict control over her body kept it down. Sweat made her pajamas cling to her skin. Shaking her head, she stood up, slipped her feet into a pair of slippers, and walked out into the hall. Maybe going for a little walk around the base would let her emotions settle.
Fluorescent lights burned the eyes, or that could have been from the crying in her sleep. She rubbed at them and sighed. The common room, dark save for the faintest setting of the ceiling lights, loomed ahead. Stepping in, her eyes immediately tracked to the memorial wall. Her stomach dropped, not a pleasant feeling with it still upset from the nightmare.
"How did I fail you so badly?" she whispered as she walked toward the cold stone lined with the names of her people. She brushed fingers over familiar names. Her heart ached. Her soul, the very essence of herself, her Flames buried deep inside, burned in shame and grief at the loss of their lives. They were hers. How? How had she failed so badly?
The first night in this place had been more about coming to terms with time travel. Yes, she had known that bad things had happened, but her mind had been preoccupied with the fact she was a person out of her time. This night, after the fighting and the near-death experience at the hands of Lal Mirch, had finally allowed her mind to come to terms with everything. It hit her like a truck. Rumiko and Yuusuke, who had practically raised her after inheriting the Akatora, were gone. She was without their advice for the first time in her life. Then she was being hunted, attacked from all angles, and people were still looking to her to lead.
"What do I do?" she whispered to the silence of the night.
Tsuna jumped and spun around. Her heart hammered in her chest. Eyes wide, she dropped into a fighting stance. Nothing and no one. She swallowed and stood upright. She knew she had heard something, someone, trying to say something. She shivered and crossed her arms over her chest. The Vongola ring suddenly felt heavy on her finger. Her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth as she peered at it and wondered at how her intuition was telling her nothing. It unnerved her. She was certain she had heard someone saying something.
"Tsunami?" Hibari appeared in the doorway leading to the living quarters. He still had his suit on.
"Hibari," she greeted him. Her voice was tense, full of all of her worries.
Hibari watched her in silence for several seconds before sighing and sitting down on one of the chairs. "Sit, Tsunami."
"Hibari?" She did sit down opposite him, but that tone scratched at something inside of her. He sounded so off, so dejected. That was not an emotion she associated with him.
He looked around the darkness before sighing. "I see you, and I realize how much she changed."
"My future self?"
"Yes." He paused and stared at her for several seconds. "You still have the capability to hope."
"The loss of her pack broke her, Tsunami," Hibari stated and motioned to the wall. "I see the knowledge of what happened is breaking you and that is something we cannot afford right now."
Tsuna puffed up. "I am not breaking."
"Had a nightmare, then? And jumping at shadows."
She looked away. Her fists clenched in her lap. "I heard someone trying to say something."
"Tricks of the mind when it tries to fill in the silence." Hibari shrugged and leaned forward with a sardonic smile. "At least you haven't torn the base apart. She did right after she got out of medical when the first attack happened."
"She blamed herself for the deaths, then? I can imagine myself having the same reaction." She frowned. "How did the Millefiore get so powerful, so fast? I'd assume my older self would have had time to plan for an attack like that if she knew there was a family gunning for her. To be blindsided, that is not like me. A family lives and dies by information."
His lips twitched upward into a faint smile. "None of us are sure about that. The Arcobaleno went down so fast and then this practically military family appears out of nowhere to do simultaneous attacks across the globe."
"In essence." He clicked his tongue. "You do have the best chance of stopping him here. We aren't sure how, but he figured out how we'd react to certain attacks and took advantage of that. We weren't able to adapt fast enough. You, not bound by those patterns and, frankly, more willing to bend than her, might be able to surprise him."
"So I fell into that problem," she said and turned to look back at the wall. "And I paid for it in blood."
"They willingly died so you'd have time to escape. Samurai thinking to the end."
"Dying for their lord." Her eyes shut tight and jaw clenched as she tried to not cry. "As a lord has a responsibility to their people, so too do the people have a responsibility to their lord. They should still be here. I…"
"You miss their advice." He hesitated before reaching out to pat her shoulder. She opened her eyes and looked at him. He seemed uncomfortable, unused to providing such comfort and part of her heart broke for him. Had she been so bad that she could not lean on her own for comfort?
"Go back to bed, Tsunami," he suddenly said, rising to his feet.
"Hibari," she called and reached out for him.
He stepped back out of reach. "Just go, Tsunami."
"Was it, was I so—"
"Go." That single word ended the conversation as he turned and strode out of the room. His shoulders drew up and every line of his body screamed tension to her.
"Damn it," she muttered to herself and stood up. "Did I get that bad?"
No one answered her, for which she was grateful for. She felt a coolness curl around her skin. Shivering, she wished she had thought to put on a robe or something. The air conditioning was turned down a bit low. Ignoring the odd feeling, she started walking back to her room. Stomach finally settled from her anxiety attack and a feeling of determination brewing in her heart, she got back into bed and drifted off to sleep. The nightmares did not return, but she swore she heard Rumiko's voice telling her she would be fine. It was comforting, even if only a dream.
Breakfast was tense. Takeshi and Hayato could both tell something was off with Tsuna. She didn't have the wherewithal to dissuade them of those thoughts. She may not have had another nightmare upon returning to bed, but the little conversation with Hibari, looking back on it in the morning, made her vastly uncomfortable with what was not said as much as what was.
"Tsuna-hime?" Hayato, ever sensitive to her emotions, tried to catch her attention.
She took a sip of her coffee and winced at the bitter taste. "I'm fine, Hayato. Just bad dreams."
"Don't coddle her, Storm boy," Lal said with a tiny sneer that made the hairs on Tsuna's neck stand on end. She had to forcefully tamp down on her Flames lest they lash out.
"And you have no business or right admonishing me as such, Mirch," Tsuna snapped, teeth bared. "Remember that you are not mine. You have some respect, but that is quickly falling the more I think about current circumstances."
"You are aggressive this morning, Tsunami," Reborn drawled from where he was perched on a counter and drinking his coffee. His eyes danced between her and Lal.
"Just some thoughts coming together." Tsuna frowned and stared into her cup before looking up at the bluenette with blazing orange eyes. "Tell me, Mirch, how did the CEDEF not realize the Millefiore was coming? That kind of armament should have sent signals of an impending attack against someone. Tell me, Mirch, how were we betrayed?"
She had been thinking of that since the previous night. For the Arcobaleno to fall and fall so fast as Hibari had hinted at the night before, made no sense unless they had been betrayed. From what she knew about them, taking them out would require a well-armed army and still have a component of luck. This radiation that made Reborn have to dress like a bad BDSM model, it stank of the Lightning Arcobaleno to her intuition. That wasn't even including the sheer amount of weapons that would be needed for the blitzkrieg tactics Hibari had described. Someone had failed to see what was happening due to either incompetence or because they had been paid to look the other way.
"We—" Lal started to speak.
"The Lightning Arcobaleno, am I right, Mirch?"
The boys had fallen silent, watching her as she glared at the woman and let her Flames start leaking into the air. Both had their hands near weapons in case the bluenette decided to do something stupid. Their Flames rose to the surface, hovering just ready to be put to use in defending her.
"Yes," Reborn answered for the silently fuming Lal. "Verde did have something to do with the deaths of the Arcobaleno. His work on trying to fix our curse had a hand in the anti-Arcobaleno radiation."
Tsuna hummed. "And not noticing a family building up arms, soldiers?"
"They were crafty," Lal snarled.
"And you should have still been able to see what was happening," Hibari, who had been standing in the doorway unnoticed by all, interjected with a tiny smirk on his face. "How many times did you ignore our reports of rumors of things happening?"
"Yes, rumors. No facts." She stood up and slammed her hands onto the table. "Do you think I don't know that we fucked up? That by the time we knew anything was wrong, it was too late?"
"Just so you remember that I and mine tried to warn you, Mirch." Hibari sat down at the table and looked at the three teenagers with a critical eye as they slowly suppressed their Flames.
"Well, now I know one thing to look out for when we get back to our time," Tsuna grumbled as she took another draw of the coffee.
"I spoke to Giovanini this morning," Lal turned the conversation away from her failures. "He believes you're ready to start working with your older selves' box animals."
"Like Zamza?" Hayato asked. Tsuna shivered at the reminder of the many-legged insect.
"They aren't all insects, Tsunami." Lal rolled her eyes. "Hayato, Bianchi wants to work with you and Uri. Uri is a Storm leopard. I also recommend working on your aim and rate of fire from that arm cannon."
"Right. Bianchi." Hayato groaned but bowed his head in agreement.
"Takeshi, Jirou and Kojirou. A Rain dog and a Rain swallow. You'll be working with me," Reborn grinned at him. "If the fight yesterday is any sign of your skill, you need to work on hitting small, fast-moving targets."
"Of course, Reborn." The smile on his face matched Reborn's, the smile of an assassin. He stood from the table. "Well, shall we go?"
"And you will be with Hibari," Lal finished and fished a small box out of her pocket. "That is Natsu and I wish you luck in dealing with her. Also, start working on attacking with your Flames from a distance. It's not always the best idea to get up close and personal with your opponent every time."
"A blasting attack?" Tsuna hummed and grabbed the box. "That sounds difficult."
Lal smirked. "Yeah, your older self had such an interesting time coming up with it."
Tsuna's stomach dropped at the amused looks coming from both Lal and Hibari. That did not give her confidence in coming up with a proper attack. She groaned and placed her head in her hands. Well, at least she'd have a good spar with Hibari to learn to work with this Natsu. She frowned as everyone began to leave the room. Had Lal not told her what kind of animal to expect?
Hayato walked into the training room and froze at the sight of his sister. The half-melted flesh on her face made him both angry and sick every time he saw it. His Flames flickered, Storm stronger than the others and more rapidly responding to his anger.
"Calm down, Hayato," Bianchi drawled and held up a small box. "We're going to be working on bringing a certain kitty cat out of her nap time."
"Kitty cat?" He mouthed the words before shaking his head. "Lal said it was a leopard."
She grinned. "She is. A leopard cub, at least so long as you don't feed her Cloud Flames."
Hayato stared at his sister and the offered box for several seconds. As his fingers curled around the box, he felt a flare of heat and a draw on his Storm Flames. The box opened, Storm Flames flying everywhere. The two humans ducked and closed their eyes against the onslaught. A loud yowl greeted them when they opened their eyes.
"Uri," Bianchi groaned.
It was tiny, the size of a small kitten, with a reddish tint to its fur and tiny spots dotting its coat. The most striking feature, the one that caught Hayato's attention, was the ears. Large and tipped with flickering Storm Flames. It sat there as proud as any cat, knowing it ruled the room it was in and chirped again.
"What?" he said. The cat chirruped again before moving far faster than she should have been able. Claws cut into clothing but barely touched the skin beneath as it climbed up his body to stand on his shoulder. He swayed at the sudden addition of weight and turned as best he could to look into the ruby eyes of the cat. It let out a rumbling noise before sniffing at his hair. He swore it smiled before digging claws into his shoulder hard enough to draw blood and daintily jumping to the floor once he started flailing.
"Uri!" Hayato shrieked.
Bianchi sighed as she watched from a distance. "Yeah, that's Uri all right."
"You knew this would happen?"
"Well, Uri is temperamental at the best of times." She shrugged. "I had hoped you'd have a better start than this and that she would know not to cause trouble."
Said cat smiled smugly in a way only a cat could do and licked her paw. Ruby eyes glittered up at the smaller form of her human. He smelled different, without as much pain and sadness as had hung around him when he was bigger, but he was still her human. He had reacted a lot like his bigger self, just with more high pitched yelling. She tasted the fire that gave her strength and connected her to her human. They felt odd, a strange vibration going through them. Peering at her human, she tracked the oddness to the bit of metal he wrapped around one of his fingers. It didn't feel wrong, exactly, just odd. It thrummed in time with his heartbeat, and the connection to the fire felt stronger and steadier than usual despite the vibration.
She'd get used to it.
"So, what can she do?" Hayato asked as he calmed down from the cat's little tantrum.
Uri chirped at him and moved. Fire flared out around her as she raced around the room. Claws extended and hit the metal targets as she bounced between them. Where claws touch, metal turned to dust, her favorite if the easiest trick to do.
"Well, that's something," he muttered as he looked at the damage the cat had caused in only a few seconds. "To balance out my preference for long-range over melee?"
"That was the idea." Bianchi nodded and smiled at her little brother. "Did you feel the draw on your Flames when she did that?"
"Remember how that felt. As long as she is out, you can feed her your other Flames for some interesting results."
"Like growing her up to full size?"
Uri's ears perked up as she felt tiny trickles of the growing fire down her connection with her human. She felt her limbs grow, her body lengthen. Teeth and claws grew. She stretched out, her tail slowly wavering behind her. She sat up and looked at her human and the burned one. She let out a rumbling noise and stalked over to her wary human. He still had the sense to know she was much stronger than he. Good. She butted her head up against his head and flopped over his feet to keep him in place as she eyed the burned one.
"As I said, temperamental," Bianchi sighed and took a step back. She recognized that look on the leopard's face.
"I see," Hayato said as he looked down at the happily rumbling feline. He looked up at his sister. A question that had been bothering him ever since he saw her the first time in this hellish future burned on his tongue. He probably wouldn't have a better time to ask it, plus he could get Uri to keep her from running out on him if it upset her, hopefully at least. "Bianchi, why are you here?"
"Because you need training, though I was expecting you to have more problems with Uri."
Hayato frowned. "No, I mean here with Vongola."
Bianchi fell quiet at the question. She looked to the side and drew a hand up to her face. "You wouldn't understand, Hayato."
"Revenge? For what Millefiore did to you?" He shrugged and knelt to scratch at Uri's ears. The happy rumble became louder.
She looked down at the ground and closed her eyes before looking back up at her baby brother. "Before the Millefiore, before all of this crap happened, your Sky had a meeting with Father. It did not go well for him, or Mother."
"Bianchi?" His voice was soft, concerned by the tremor in her voice.
"I am so sorry, Hayato. I had no idea Mother…" She took a deep breath. "I know you love your mother. I kind of remember Miss Lavina, but I do remember how much Mother hated her. Mother…I know you've blamed Father for Miss Lavina's death, but your Sky, when she bashed down the front door and invaded the manor after Father tried something stupid, found out Mother was the one who had her vehicle tampered with. I am so sorry, Hayato. Father, he was going to leave Mother for her and Mother could not have that, and then she, your Sky, she took me in even when she destroyed everything that the Falcone had built up. The money, manor, the territory, it all belongs to Vongola now."
Bianchi laughed, hollowly. "She really should have killed me, you know? Everyone was expecting her to. We aren't exactly close. She blames me, rightly, for a lot of the hell you went through as a kid. Still, she let me live, gave me a chance to earn my keep. She has my loyalty, little brother, a lot like she has yours."
"Bianchi," Hayato whispered and stood up. Unnoticed by either sibling, the leopard shrunk back down to kitten sized and watched as her human embraced the burned one.
Humans, she'd never understand them.
Tsuna stepped lightly into the training room and frowned at the extra padding that lined the walls. She had a feeling Someone was trying to warn her about something, but whatever the warning was, it wasn't clicking. Hibari walked in behind her. Turning to face him, she felt her stomach turn to stone. That smile was not a comforting one.
"Which would you prefer to work on first, Natsu or the distance attack I know you are capable of?"
"Distance attack," she said quickly. She had an idea for how she could turn her Flames into a sort of beam type weapon.
"Well then, the Cloud said with a widening grin as he pulled out a box and lit his ring with his Flames, "prepare yourself, Tsunami."
The box unfolded in a burst of purple Flame. Tsuna set herself into a fighting stance. She remembered those spinning balls of doom that Hibari had unleashed against Gamma. A single hedgehog settled into Hibari's hand. It's beady eyes looked at her before it turned to squeak at its human. The two shared a look before the hedgehog gave the equivalent of a shrug and turned back around to face the waiting Sky.
It was the only warning she got.
She jumped backward as the first ball of spiky death hit where she had been standing. She had to flip out of the way as it bounced off the ground toward her again. It hit the wall and spun into the air. It hovered there for several seconds before purple Flames flared over its body. Tsuna felt her stomach drop as the single spinning ball of spiky death became several spinning balls of spiky death. The hedgehog and its clones let out war squeaks before blazing straight for her.
"Oh, shit!" Tsuna flared her Flames, using them to propel herself upward. Dancing around the box animal's continuous attacks, she landed during a break in the bombardment. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Hibari grinning at her. Laughing internally, more like it.
"I will get even for this," she hissed.
"You can try. I'd keep moving if I were you."
Her eyes went wide. She cartwheeled out of the way of another volley of bouncing hedgehogs. Her tongue pressed firmly against the roof of her mouth. There had to be some way to attack the damn things. The spikes cut out the idea of striking plus they were moving too fast to get in a hit to their less armored underside. Hibari had trained them well. So, long-distance attack it was. She had done blasts of Sky Flames before, but they were tiny and didn't have the kind of hitting power she'd need to take down the horde.
Walking up the wall to avoid being hit, she flipped in midair and aimed a blast of Flame downward. Not concentrated enough, the Flames washed over the army of hedgehogs. A few popped due to the harmony property of Sky Flame interrupting the propagation factor, but the horde remained large and outnumbering her by a large amount. Her feet hit the ceiling. She rebounded toward the ground. She settled into a balanced, wide-legged stance and held both her hands out in front of her. Compress. She had to remember to compress and concentrate her Flames. The lead hedgehog squeaked and charged, its copies following behind him. Tsuna breathed in and released the pressure.
Tsuna went flying backward into the wall.
She groaned and shut her eyes as pain radiated from her back. She slumped to the ground. A chuckle, low and far too amused, made her open her eyes to glare at the older version of her boyfriend. Her lips pulled back in a snarl that only made him more amused. The hedgehogs bounced over her head and skid to a stop in front of its human. The copies sparked and faded into bursts of Cloud Flame.
"You expected that," she accused and she got back to her feet.
"It is just as funny seeing it the second time." He smiled at her, teeth glinting in the light. "Forget about Newton's Third Law?"
"Oh shut it." She growled and set herself back up. "Let's go again. I know what I did wrong. Now I just need to put it into practice."
"Of course, Tsunami."
Takeshi slumped against the training room wall. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck and clothes clung to his skin. He ran a hand through his sweat-slicked hair. Kojirou, as he had been informed the bird's name was, cheeped from where it sat on his shoulder. Beside him, Jirou panted. The harness on the dog clinked as he tried to settle into a more comfortable position with his less furry belly on the cool floor.
"You did well," Reborn said, tipping his hat toward the teenager.
"You are a menace," Takeshi wheezed in between breaths. He slumped over. "I have not had such a hard fight since I sparred with Dad."
Reborn grinned and threw a bottle of water at the teen. "Thank you for the compliment. You work well with your box animals. I was not expecting you to be able to channel Mist Flame enough to make your bird invisible."
"I've been working with Chrome," he grinned savagely. "She has some good ideas for simple exercises to improve control."
"Her or Rokudo?"
"Her. Rokudo is more likely to suggest visualization exercises, the few times I've gotten to talk to him at least." He paused and frowned. "Hey, you've been talking to Mirch for a while about what happened for this to happen, right? So, when do we get him free anyway?"
"After the rings got shattered is all she'd tell me." The Arcobaleno frowned. "She's been very careful about what information to give me so we don't screw up the timeline when we get back."
Takeshi hummed in reply and leaned his head back against the wall. Kojirou chirped and hopped up to start grooming his human's hair. Jirou huffed and turned to lay on his side. Happy dog tail wagging behind him.
"Hey, Reborn?" he said and opened one eye to look at the Arcobaleno.
"Why do you and Lal react so badly when Tsuna flares her Flames? I know I've seen you both flinch from them."
Silence descended. Reborn peered at the teenager from beneath his hat. Takeshi met his gaze steadily.
"Is this bothering you that badly, boy?"
"It's bothering Tsuna, so it bothers me."
"Spoken like a true Guardian." The Arcobaleno sighed and tilted his hat to cover his face. "Neither of us likes to talk about it, but Lal and I, and some of the other Arcobaleno but I will not speak of who, we had a rudimentary bond with the previous Sky Arcobaleno."
"Oh." Takeshi voice was soft. He could feel the Sun was hiding his emotions, trying to suppress them, but failing to hide all of them. That bitterness was something he was most used to hearing in the girls who had been sold by their families to pay off debts. Betrayal. Anger. Self-hate. He wished Tsuna hadn't been right. He forced his face into a placid state. He had the feeling Reborn did not want pity.
"Your Sky put you up to this, Yamamoto?" The hardness in the tone made Takeshi wince.
"Not directly." He shrugged. "We just notice when she notices how you react to Sky Flames. It unnerves her to have people cringe away when they aren't an enemy."
"Most Italian Skies don't constantly let their Flames fill a room. I take it that's a Japanese thing?"
The teen hummed and took the chance to switch the topic. "Pretty much. Some are more subtle about it, but Tsuna's got the power to not need to be subtle." He tilted his head slightly. "Well, that and she gets more respect from the traditionalist old-timers when she doesn't hide that she's doing it."
"What?" Reborn blinked.
"Tsuna's had to deal with men thinking she's weak because she's a woman. If they can feel the strength of her Flames, they doubt her less." He shrugged. "Sometimes a little doubt helps, makes them underestimate all of us, but too much and we get no respect. It's a balancing act. Tsuna's good at it."
"That bodes well for the future." Reborn paused and eyed the teen. "Ready for another round?"
"Sure. Maybe this time I'll manage to tag you." Kojirou took flight, swooping around the room, as Jirou stood up and stretched.
"Good luck with that kid."
Tsuna flopped over on her back. Her shoulders hurt. She finally, after many attempts and experiments, had a general idea of how much Flames she had to use to balance herself while using her new attack. It had only taken flying into the walls several times. Hibari's laughter hurt her pride, but it was nice to hear. The man needed to laugh.
"Well, that was entertaining to watch," Hibari said as he dropped a towel on her face. She huffed but began to wipe sweat from her forehead. "You'll need to work on that more, become faster with it."
"Yeah, yeah," Tsuna whined as she sat up, towel draping around her neck. "That mean we're done?"
"With your new attack, yes." He looked down at the pocket he knew held her box. "You have to bond with Natsu and I refuse to be in the room when that happens."
"That is…ominous." She pulled out the tiny box and peered at it. "Dangerous?"
He grunted and walked toward the door. Roll squeaked from its perch on his shoulder. The door shut behind him. Tsuna's intuition began to blare a warning as she looked down at the tiny box. Sky Flames flickered on her ring as she hesitated. She took a deep, fortifying breath and placed her ring to the box.
Paws slammed into her chest, forcing her to the ground. Jaws lined with many sharp teeth went straight for her neck. She grabbed the towel still around her neck and used to keep jaws from closing around her vulnerable throat. Flinging the Flame construct to the side, she rolled onto her feet. Sky Flames rolled over a general quadrupedal animal form. Flames flickered and revealed nothing else besides two glowing orange eyes and a muzzle full of teeth that came straight at her.
Snarling, Tsuna grabbed the back of the beast's neck and slammed it into the ground on its side. Paws clambered to get up. She would not let that happen. She was the boss. No animal was going to be her end. She pressed hard against the flickering form of the beast and growled lowly in her throat. Natsu's eyes narrowed before it went limp. The Flames shrunk inward. Tsuna's fingers felt thick fur. Sitting back up, she looked at the animal and blinked.
A laughing call echoed around the room.
"Okay," she said, "Was not expecting a hyena."
And what a magnificent example of a hyena it was. An elegantly sloped back with a thick ruff of sparking Sky Flame in place of fur at the neck. A short muzzle, open and panting, showed off a rather impressive set of teeth. Strong legs pushing it up as Tsuna let up on the pressure. Orange fur dotted with dark orange, nearly black, spots. It yawned for a moment before Tsuna felt a small draw on her Flames, a thready bond sliding into place, and a burst of color as some of the Sky Flame that covered Natsu changed to indigo and swamped its form. A second later the bundle of Mist Flame shrunk down to puppy size and faded to reveal a much smaller hyena.
"You are adorable," Tsuna stated and picked up the much more relaxed animal. It panted and licked her face. The breath stunk though. She felt a wave of emotion, submission, and care, come from the pup. She grinned. That wasn't as hard as Hibari had insinuated. At the thought of her Cloud, the hyena began to laugh before grinning up at her in a way that showed off all its long, sharp teeth. A tendril of amusement and mischief curled through the new bond between them.
"Let's go see what the others think of you. I wonder how much Hayato will freak over you." She grinned wildly as the sense of mischief increased. "This is the start of a beautiful partnership, Natsu."